Monday, August 20, 2018

Book Review: Once a Scoundrel by Mary Jo Putney

Once a Scoundrel Cover Swashbuckling 1815 Regency romance filled with exciting adventures on the high seas

Once a Scoundrel (Rogues Redeemed #3) by Mary Jo Putney

Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: September 25, 2018
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: Zebra
Source: Purchased
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

Thirty-year-old Gabriel Hawkins Vance, known to the world as Gabriel Hawkins, is the disgraced grandson of a British admiral. He was cashiered out of the British Navy at age 18 after six years of service during which he worked up the ranks from a cabin boy to an officer. His stiff-rumped grandfather disowned him, refusing to allow Gabriel to justify an act that the Navy labeled dereliction of duty (it would be a spoiler to reveal what Gabriel did that got him into trouble). As a result, Gabriel has spent the past 12 years attempting to redeem himself by captaining his own merchant ship and using it to run blockades during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 in America, both of which have recently, in 1815, come to an end. His most recent mission took him to America to rescue a stranded English widow (a previous book in a series of books that this novel is part of which is called, "Rogues Redeemed"). At loose ends with the declaration of peace in Europe and America, Gabriel is pondering what he will take on as his next challenge when he is approached for an errand of mercy, rescuing the daughter of a British Earl from captivity in Algiers, where she is being held by Barbary pirates.

It seems to be a nearly impossible mission, because the ransom demand is an extortionate 50,000 pounds. The woman's family have scrounged together less than half that amount, and worse, Gabriel has a dangerous past history with Barbary pirates and has no desire to go anywhere near their strongholds. Thus, Gabriel is on the verge of refusing to help, until he is presented with a miniature portrait of the captive and feels such an immediate, powerful attraction to the golden-haired, young beauty, that he cannot bear the thought of leaving her to a terrible fate. If no one rescues her, she will be sold as a slave and live out her life imprisoned in a harem.

Twenty-two-year-old Lady Aurora Octavia Lawrence, is called "Rory" by her friends and family, and is notorious among the British ton as "Roaring Rory Lawrence" due to her unconventional, hoydenish ways. She has spent the past four years traveling the world with Constance Hollings, a widowed female relative, as her sole companion, utilizing an inheritance from a great uncle to fund her adventures. In addition to traveling, Rory and Constance have written multiple romantic novels together, featuring intrepidly self-sufficient female protagonists. Unfortunately, as they were heading back home to England, they and the entire crew of the sailing ship they were on were captured by pirates. Months have passed since their captor sent a ransom request to England, and Rory and Constance have almost given up hope of rescue when Gabriel Hawkins arrives.

To Gabriel's dismay, he has a dubious history with Rory's captor, Malek Reis, known as "master of the Middle Seas." And it is initially dangerously unclear whether the pirate will kill Gabriel for a past transgression against Malek or make a deal with Gabriel for Rory's release.

This is a fast-paced and engaging read. For readers who love stories involving brave sea captains fighting off pirates, this book will be a real treat. The pirates are Barbary corsairs from the Ottoman Empire, operating out of North Africa and based primarily in the ports of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, an area referred to in Europe at the time as the Barbary Coast. The setting is colorful and authentic and extremely well drawn.

Overall, the plot poses a series of story questions that keep the reader racing forward through the pages to discover the answers. The odds seems impossibly stacked against a positive outcome in this story--a vital element of any well-done action-adventure plot--and the ultimate resolution of the action-adventure plot is extremely satisfying and well written.

As for the romance portions of the book, Rory and Gabriel are sympathetic, admirable and very strong protagonists. They are well matched as to integrity, compassion, intelligence and backbone. I loved this classic, romantic conflict dramatically stated by Gabriel to Rory soon after they meet:

"Whatever is between us may be fleeting and sparked by circumstance, but it is real. And it is impossible for us to act on it."

There is a lovely, secondary romance between Constance and Jason Landers, Gabriel's 26-year-old, American first mate. These two are also extremely sympathetic and admirable characters.

For romance fans who prefer non-raunchy, slow-burn sexual relationships, this book fills the bill. The sex scenes for both of the romantic relationships are tenderly sensual.

I particularly enjoyed a delightful subplot involving a gaggle of exotic, miniature animals, and Gabriel's affectionate and hard-working, rat-killing ship's cat, Spook, is also a terrific addition to the story.

All in all, this is an extremely enjoyable historical romance.

I rate this book as follows:

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 5

Hero: 5

Subcharacters: 5

Setting: 5

Romance Plot (Main Romance): 5

Romance Plot (Secondary Romance): 5

Action-Adventure Plot: 5

Writing: 5

Overall: 5

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Book Review: Accidentally Perfect by Elizabeth Stevens

Accidentally Perfect Cover Mature-content, YA/NA romantic drama

Accidentally Perfect by Elizabeth Stevens

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Publisher: Sleeping Dragon Books
Pages: 398 pages
Source: Purchase
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

This contemporary novel is a mature-content, young-adult (bordering on new-adult), romantic drama. The story is told exclusively from the first-person point of view of the female protagonist, Piper Barlow. She and the romantic hero, Roman Lombardi, are both 17, almost 18, years old. They live in a small town near Adelaide, in South Australia. They are in Year Twelve (the equivalent of 12th grade or senior year in high school in the USA). Piper has a deep, dark secret that she refuses to reveal to anyone: she suffers from crippling social anxiety. Her entire life is a continual, uphill effort to never inflict her inner pain on anyone or disappoint anyone's social expectations of her. As a result, even though she has loving parents, a loyal best friend and a coterie of lesser friends and friendly acquaintances as a popular girl at her school, she feels excruciatingly lonely.

To everyone besides herself, Piper appears to be a beautiful, sweet-natured, innocently fragile girl. Two of the most attractive boys in her school, fellow seniors, Roman and another boy named Mason Carter, seem to be utterly fascinated with her--or so her best friend Hadley assures her, because both boys constantly stare at Piper. Hadley informs Piper that Roman in particular has been "eyeing" her for years, in between dozens of casual "hookups" with other girls, all of which involve a one-night stand and a casually cruel brushoff afterwards. He never buys any of these unfortunate girls so much as a slice of pizza, because he won't commit even to a single date. Mason is much more conventional than Roman, in that he actually does date, and he has been committed enough to be sequentially monogamous. But he doesn't have extraordinary staying power in that he has had five or six girlfriends over the course of only three or four years. This, however, is acceptable "good boy" behavior because, miraculously in Piper's opinion (and mine!), none of these girls seems to bear the ultra-desirable, gorgeous Mason the slightest resentment after these breakups.

Given that these two boys seem to be Piper's only choices for dating (for unspecified reasons), Hadley pushes virginal Piper, who has barely ever dated and possibly not even been kissed, toward Mason, whom Hadley feels is more Piper's slow-and-cautious speed than Roman. Hadley claims that she herself is the female version of Roman, and she could easily handle what he is offering, hot, casual sex, but Piper definitely could not. Hadley, in fact, has no hesitation examining their male classmates and analyzing their private anatomy and potential as casual, sexual-intercourse hookups in a manner very similar to the crudest remarks made by misogynistic men sizing up women as possible bedmates.

In the normal course of events, Piper would have continued waiting, indefinitely it seems, for pleasant, studious, athletic Mason to finally ask her out, and never had anything to do with raunchy Roman. Until Roman, his divorced mother, and his older sister's five-year-old, illegitimate daughter move in next door to Piper and her parents in a quiet neighborhood outside the city limits with no other nearby houses. Suddenly, Piper is running into Roman every day. He owns his own car, but he rides the bus with Piper instead, walking the half-mile to and from the bus stop in the morning and afternoon, and she views approvingly the tender way he interacts with his little niece. In the process, Piper gradually learns that Roman isn't the heartless cynic he appears to be. He sees beyond Piper's smiling false front to the insecure anxiety beneath, and he doesn't judge her for it. Instead, he goes out of his way to cheer her up, including making her laugh and, wonder of wonders, laughing along with her. Then comes the night that they accidentally meet at Piper's favorite de-stressing place, by the shores of a lake near her home. And their unlikely friendship really begins to take off.

I had just read Keeping Up Appearances by this author prior to reading this novel and was expecting it to also be a PG romantic comedy without sex. It was a bit of a shock, therefore, to find that this book is written very much in keeping with the norms of the New Adult subgenre of romance--heavy on internal angsting and containing multiple sex scenes. However, because these protagonists are still in high school and the author has marketed this book as "mature young adult" fiction, the sex scenes are not remotely as graphic, or as frequent, as in a typical NA romance. But since I had never before now read this degree of sexual description in a YA romance, I was quite taken by surprise when the first sex scene happened. Hopefully, other potential readers will do what I did not do and carefully read the clear warning that the author responsibly provides in her description of the novel: "Not recommended for younger readers due to mature content."

Roman is a dark YA hero of the sort typically found in "edgy" YA fiction. He is a brooding, "rebel without a cause," James Dean hero who views the world with a heavy-lidded, cynical sneer, and mood-alters his angry alienation with cigarattes, drunkeness, sex with groupie-like girls, brawling, and vandalism. He has been frequently arrested for disorderly conduct, both for his own misdemeanor crimes and taken in for questioning about the misdemeanor crimes of his best buddy, Rio, who is as Byronically dark-natured as Roman. To date, though Roman rarely attends class, and constantly flunks tests, he has never been held back a grade in school, and even seems in line to graduate high school. We are given to understand this is because he has always been bailed out of his educational and legal difficulties by his wealthy, emotionally distant father, whom everyone in his town is in awe of. Roman's mother is sweet and loving, but no more willing or able than Roman's father to make sure that Roman receives the anger-management therapy he so obviously, desperately needs. His only relatively harmless angst-relieving activity is skateboarding. (Which seems an oddly, geekishly boyish pursuit for a macho male.) I personally am not a fan of romance protagonists who smoke and drink to excess--whether in YA, NA or adult romance. This book, in fact, is the first one I've read in over 25 years with a smoking hero. However, the author attempts to mitigate readers' being repelled by Roman's smoking, and its inevitable health and hygiene issues, by having Piper not be repelled by it. She comments, midway through the book, "Funny how he smoked so much but never smelled like it."

I also personally enjoy a classic, "us against the world" plot where two disaffected loners find a home in each other, and this story certainly delivers a strong version of that plot.

Ms. Stevens is a very talented writer and particularly excels at presenting a romantic hero who, while displaying an obnoxiously alpha, choleric disposition to the rest of the world, interacts with the heroine like a lovable, beta male who is sensitive, affectionate, a good listener, and basically, very nurturing.

Ms. Stevens also writes a traditional romance-novel structure, which we diehard romance fans adore: the essential romantic conflict of distrust slowly evolving to trust through a personal-growth arc of one or both protagonists, and a happily ever after (HEA) ending which is, of couse, in protagonists this young (and likewise for NA romance) more of a "happy for now" ending.

Hadley is a familiar BFF confidante found in the "erotic romance" genre since Harlequin Blaze first started, back in the 90's, offering the now very familiar plot device of a good-girl heroine encouraged by her down-and-dirty BFF to be more adventurous about sex. Given that this is YA, Hadley is a less extreme version of this type of BFF in that she doesn't push Piper to have sex, and she herself seems to be more talk than action regarding engaging in sex herself.

I was glad to see Piper, in particular, work beyond a self-protective over-reliance on the stereotypical female role of people-pleasing doormat who lives to fulfill the every need and demand of the people in her life. As for Roman, his major defining attitude and life motto is the self-fulfilling prophecy, "What you see is what you get with me....I can't be changed." This declaration sounds obnoxiously egotistical, except for the fact that his chief virtue is wrapped up inside it: He has no desire to try and change anyone else because he doesn't believe other people can change and grow either. Piper accepts his world view when they are together, and is liberated by it because it gives her the freedom, for the first time in her life, to act in a way that she otherwise has always considered terrifyingly risky in that she has believed it will inevitably bring judgment and rejection. She tells Roman that they are "two people having an extended pity party" together. This ironically is healing for both of them, because it allows them to externalize their deepest blind spot--that they both are suffering from anxiety due to unconsciously wallowing in self-pity and resentment--un-enmesh from it, and thereby begin to grow beyond it. As the two of them for the first time, with anyone, share their deepest hopes and fears with each other, this acts to deliver the most significant element that the very best romance novels manage to achieve: The romantic conflict between the protagonists is the clash between their socially created, false selves, which cover up and hide their authentic, true selves. Only if they can reveal to each other their true selves--which is the ultimate sacrifice to "earn" true love--can they become worthy of true love.

For fans of angsty, sexy NA romance, this book will be a fun read.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Romance Plot: 4

Social Drama Plot: 3

Writing: 4

Overall: 4